Annual Telethon Returns to Spread Christmas Cheer in Kokomo
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
The year was 1973, and Dick Bronson was a deejay at WWKI-FM when he fielded a call from a forlorn factory worker. Unemployed at the time, he didn’t know how he was going to swing Christmas for his kids that year. An empathetic Bronson offered the fellow half of whatever money was in his wallet, which was $20. The man was grateful, but the kind gesture didn’t stop there as listeners stepped up as well. By the time Bronson’s shift was complete, $1,000, plus toys, had been donated. Ultimately, the windfall benefitted not only the gentleman who called in but other Kokomo families in need as well.
An idea was born. The station held its first official 48-hour telethon in 1975 wherein community members and business owners donated toys and items to be bid upon and auctioned off.
Jan Buechler helped coordinate, as did Charlie Cropper, a deejay on air with Bronson. Through the years, Bronson, Buechler, and Cropper all acted as presidents of We Care. Becky Varnell took over as president 11 years ago after Cropper’s passing.
When asked why they wanted to hold the telethon, Bronson replied, “Because we care.” And that’s how the name was born. Varnell says that Buechler was called “We Care Jan” because she immersed herself in the cause.
Though the organization didn’t officially become a 501(c)(3) until 1983, they received national recognition multiple times, starting in 1980 when We Care was featured on NBC’s “Today Show.”
“They got a $1,000 donation from Engel Jewelers here in town and with that money they bought 172,000 jars of baby food, which they distributed to the community,” Varnell says.
In 1981, the organization raised more than $100,000. Now they typically raise upwards of $400,000 each year. The telethon was first broadcast on television in 1982. Now it is broadcast simultaneously on the radio as it’s being shown on Comcast. In addition, several years ago they started live streaming to enable additional people to bid on items.
In 1983, We Care received a letter from President Reagan, commending the community’s efforts. Two years later, Congressman Elwood Haynes “Bud” Hillis, who was born in Kokomo and attended Kokomo public schools, presented We Care with their first of three presidential citation awards. In 1986, Bronson and Buechler traveled to the White House to participate in a ceremony at the Rose Garden.
As the years passed, more and more people made donations.
“It’s not unusual for us to get anywhere from 3,000 or more items per telethon,” Varnell says.
They begin accepting donations at 10 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and they spend the next week entering items into the computer, documenting and describing each one. That week the deejays come to the back of the building to interview people who are donating and want to share their stories.
They receive all types of donations — everything from homemade Raggedy Ann dolls to motorhomes and cars. They receive handmade quilts and items made by schoolchildren such as bird houses. One commonality runs throughout them all: every donation has a story.
“I make sure that all volunteers understand that when someone hands something to you to donate, they are giving it to you from the heart,” says Varnell, who explains that it’s not so much about the item itself as it is the meaning behind it.
On-air deejays share the story that is attached to the item that explains the concept behind it, the love that was put into it and how it went from the initial thought to an item donated with love.
“When you see a little kid come in who is clinging to something that they want to donate but really don’t want to part with, that’s sweet because their parents are trying to teach them the purpose of helping others,” Varnell says. “That, to me, is a precious thing to witness.”
Born and raised in Kokomo, Varnell is now in her 41st year of working with the organization. She recalls that cookbooks, with favorite recipes gathered from different people in the community, have been a hot seller. One year they sold 10,000 cookbooks within 21 hours.
“Jan organized that entire effort,” Varnell says.
Then volunteers gathered at a warehouse and, page by page, pieced the cookbooks together. It takes more than 700 volunteers to put on the annual telethon, which this year starts at 6 p.m. on Friday, December 6, and ends at 6 p.m. on Sunday, December 8. Many are third-generation volunteers who used to help their grandparents and parents with We Care.
“I think We Care exemplifies volunteerism at its best, when more than 700 individuals from every walk of life come together,” Varnell adds. “There are 26 department heads that schedule their volunteers, working together for one common goal.”
Varnell likens the telethon to a big family reunion as people gather who haven’t seen one another in a year.
“We have doctors, businessmen and women, housewives, truck drivers, you name it,” Varnell says. “Some even take vacations so they are off work for the full 48 hours of the telethon.”
Still, she stresses that they are always in search of younger folks to join the cause. “We need new blood to ensure this doesn’t die off in the community.”
We Care donates to five primary organizations: The Kokomo Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, Goodfellows Bona Vista, Mental Health of Howard County, and Urban Out Reach. Each one helps the community in various ways. They tally the monies and give it away at a check presentation that is live on WWKI, then are back to a zero balance. They do, however, maintain the We Care Hope Fund for the purpose of providing long-term funding for the program.
Varnell maintains that so often in the news we hear of all the bad in a community — the crime, the corruption, the complaints. It’s the total opposite in the We Care community.
“That’s what makes We Care so unique,” Varnell says.
Perhaps the biggest change in the telethon through the years has been the lack of understanding behind what it’s all about.
“Technology has taken over people’s lives, and the simplicity of what we’re doing is lost on them,” Varnell says.
That special feeling you get from volunteering isn’t something you can get from staring at a phone.
“If you stay focused on your purpose for being here — that smiling child on Christmas morning who got a toy that she otherwise wouldn’t have — that’s what it’s all about,” Varnell says.
When residents move away from Kokomo, they say they miss the camaraderie that surrounds We Care.
“They tell us they feel a void in their life because nowhere else in the United States do you find something like this,” Varnell says. “Given that we’re in year 47, clearly We Care is something that mankind needs. We all need to feel needed so if we can give something to those in need and it fulfills our need, that’s a win-win.”